Nobody Ever Loves An Invader

Graphic from Bob Jones

Are there similarities between our failed 12-year war (1961-1973) in Vietnam and our 13 years (2001-2014) in Afghanistan without a win?

I say yes, because we paid no attention to our social scientists. We cannot occupy countries with American troops. As we watch our Afghanistan plan disintegrate through waste and corruption, I am reminded of the late Gerald Hickey, the American anthropologist who had the best read on why “winning hearts and minds” became a failed Vietnam policy to justify military occupation. Hickey did believe in America’s initial intervention in Vietnam, but came to believe our big footprint and getting so many civilians killed was bad policy.

He understood that while we enlisted disaffected Vietnamese tribes to fight for us, we had no intention of helping them get any autonomy vis-a-vis the Saigon government. Likewise, we enlist Afghan villagers to fight the Taliban, but we support a repressive, corrupt and basically undemocratic government that we’ll leave behind.

We keep seeking military solutions – Grenada, Somalia, Haiti – but never social solutions.

Gerry Hickey and I were friends in Vietnam. His failing was supporting intervention to start with (he was a conservative Catholic and believer in an American wall against communism) and it killed his later life as an academic when universities were purging interventionists from their faculties.

Hickey said our policy was wrong because we never intended to turn over Vietnam – especially the highlands populated by minorities – to the people. We intended to turn it over to the generals, just as we intend in Afghanistan, all that “parliamentary democracy” baloney aside.

We just keep making old intervention mistakes while expecting different results.

There is one essential difference between the Vietnam and Afghan wars. The Viet Cong and North Viets had no urge to die, no “going to paradise” concept. So they didn’t do car bombs or suicide vests. They wanted to live as long as possible. Nobody was promising them figs and virgins.

But people will mightily fight to keep out foreigners, whether it’s Xerxes (the accepted modern spelling), Alexander, Gen. William Westmoreland or Gen. John Allen. Xerxes had to fold in Greece. Alexander in Arabia. Westmoreland in Vietnam. And now Allen or a successor will haul down our flag in Afghanistan.

The fact is that, like it or not, America just can’t toss its weight around as it did in the past. Sending in some troops or warships may just further inflame a large, unruly foreign protest. It’s just like here at home, where protest crowds are no longer cowed by charging police with tear gas guns and water canons. People turn even more violent.

There will have to be new, creative ways to tamp down unrest. The days of blunt force are as gone as when police and thugs would confront union strikers. We don’t have to acquiesce all the time. But we can’t meet every crisis with “send in the Marines.”